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Does Money Matter in School Reform?

Asking if money affects student performance is a little like asking if gravity affects inanimate objects. The answer in both cases is more nuanced than it initially seems.

Let's begin by looking at the numbers. We spend $11,749 per student in public schools annually (Statistical Abstract of the United States). To put this into context, between 1970 and 2005, inflation-adjusted per-student spending increased by more than 100 percent (Digest of Educational Statistics).

In actuality, spending on public schools per student is probably considerably higher because school districts ordinarily don't include debt service, employee benefits and transportation costs. But I'll concede that the expenditure is substantial since it is from a reliable source. The usual criticism is that spending over the years has not improved the performance of schools. So why continue to "throw" money at schools? Once again, I'll concede this point since accountability is a reasonable demand.

But I draw the line when reformers make the blunt statement that insufficient funding of schools is being used as an excuse. That's because there is a difference between an excuse and an explanation. To put a human face on what I mean, I suggest reading the Houston Press story that was published two days before Christmas ("Children of God"). Of the 800 children in Grissom Elementary School, 300 are homeless. I defy anyone to argue that poverty is an excuse for the school's performance.

Yet the Obama administration cites charter schools as an example of what can be done. However, charter schools often receive substantial funding from philanthropic groups. The Harlem Children's Zone, among others, is heavily supported by non-public funding. It's one of the reasons it can provide the wraparound services it is known for. Let's not forget also that charter schools vary widely in quality, often performing worse than traditional schools serving students from similar backgrounds.

What's most disturbing, though, is that almost all traditional schools across the country are being asked to do more and more with less and less. It's no longer a matter of cutting fat. It's a matter of cutting essentials that go beyond the obvious like laying off teachers and reducing janitorial service, art supplies and textbooks.

Not all school districts, however, are feeling the pain equally. In Allen,Texas, an affluent community north of Dallas, voters passed a special bond referendum that raised $60 million for a new high school football stadium. One school board member said: "We didn't look at the cost. We looked at what we needed." His remark explains why money does indeed matter. Or at least it matters in wealthy communities.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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